As northeast Asia teeters on the brink of a conflict that could escalate beyond anyone’s control, it is more important than ever to be well-informed about North Korea, and move beyond the common caricatures of the country and its leader, Kim Jong-un. This is difficult when many misconceptions about North Korea perpetuate in the public consciousness.
1. The ‘crazy Kim’ hypothesis
In the 2004 comedy film Team America, Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il, is illustrative of a popular view of North Korea that both feeds and is fed by the perception that the Kim regime is irrational, crazy and evil.
This caricature is a poor foundation on which to build a North Korea policy.
Proponents of this view point to the Kim regime’s horrendous human rights record and the Orwellian social controls put in place to maintain the Kims at the head of North Korea’s unique authoritarian political system.
Further reading: Human rights in North Korea: the implications of the Kirby report
While the regime’s coercive arms have been responsible for crimes against the North Korean people that could be considered “evil”, this does not suffice as an explanation for why it engages in these practices.
The “why” is important. It feeds information into risk analyses and pinpoints leverage points for strategic interactions with North Korea.
We don’t have to like this logic or agree on its strategic utility to see there is rational strategy at work. We need to locate Kim and his regime within the context of the complex incentives and constraints of North Korea’s interwoven political, economic, cultural and ecological systems.